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20.10: Tastes and Odors

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    Both taste and odor stimuli are molecules taken in from the environment. The primary tastes detected by humans are sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. The first four tastes need little explanation. The identification of umami as a fundamental taste occurred fairly recently—it was identified in 1908 by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda while he worked with seaweed broth, but it was not widely accepted as a taste that could be physiologically distinguished until many years later. The taste of umami, also known as savoriness, is attributable to the taste of the amino acid L-glutamate. In fact, monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is often used in cooking to enhance the savory taste of certain foods. What is the adaptive value of being able to distinguish umami? Savory substances tend to be high in protein.

    All odors that we perceive are molecules in the air we breathe. If a substance does not release molecules into the air from its surface, it has no smell. And if a human or other animal does not have a receptor that recognizes a specific molecule, then that molecule has no smell. Humans have about 350 olfactory receptor subtypes that work in various combinations to allow us to sense about 10,000 different odors. Compare that to mice, for example, which have about 1,300 olfactory receptor types, and therefore probably sense more odors. Both odors and tastes involve molecules that stimulate specific chemoreceptors. Although humans commonly distinguish taste as one sense and smell as another, they work together to create the perception of flavor. A person’s perception of flavor is reduced if he or she has congested nasal passages.

    Reception and Transduction

    Odorants (odor molecules) enter the nose and dissolve in the olfactory epithelium, the mucosa at the back of the nasal cavity (as illustrated in Figure 1). The olfactory epithelium is a collection of specialized olfactory receptors in the back of the nasal cavity that spans an area about 5 cm2 in humans. Recall that sensory cells are neurons. An olfactory receptor, which is a dendrite of a specialized neuron, responds when it binds certain molecules inhaled from the environment by sending impulses directly to the olfactory bulb of the brain. Humans have about 12 million olfactory receptors, distributed among hundreds of different receptor types that respond to different odors. Twelve million seems like a large number of receptors, but compare that to other animals: rabbits have about 100 million, most dogs have about 1 billion, and bloodhounds—dogs selectively bred for their sense of smell—have about 4 billion. The overall size of the olfactory epithelium also differs between species, with that of bloodhounds, for example, being many times larger than that of humans.

    Olfactory neurons are bipolar neurons (neurons with two processes from the cell body). Each neuron has a single dendrite buried in the olfactory epithelium, and extending from this dendrite are 5 to 20 receptor-laden, hair-like cilia that trap odorant molecules. The sensory receptors on the cilia are proteins, and it is the variations in their amino acid chains that make the receptors sensitive to different odorants. Each olfactory sensory neuron has only one type of receptor on its cilia, and the receptors are specialized to detect specific odorants, so the bipolar neurons themselves are specialized. When an odorant binds with a receptor that recognizes it, the sensory neuron associated with the receptor is stimulated. Olfactory stimulation is the only sensory information that directly reaches the cerebral cortex, whereas other sensations are relayed through the thalamus.

    Illustration A shows a bipolar neuron, which has two dendrites. Illustration B shows a cross section of a human head. The nostrils lead to the nasal cavity, which sits above the mouth. The olfactory bulb is just above the olfactory epithelium that lines the nasal cavity. Neurons run from the bulb into the nasal cavity.
    Figure 1. In the human olfactory system, (a) bipolar olfactory neurons extend from (b) the olfactory epithelium, where olfactory receptors are located, to the olfactory bulb. (credit: modification of work by Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe, MD, cardiologist)
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    A pheromone is a chemical released by an animal that affects the behavior or physiology of animals of the same species. Pheromonal signals can have profound effects on animals that inhale them, but pheromones apparently are not consciously perceived in the same way as other odors. There are several different types of pheromones, which are released in urine or as glandular secretions. Certain pheromones are attractants to potential mates, others are repellants to potential competitors of the same sex, and still others play roles in mother-infant attachment. Some pheromones can also influence the timing of puberty, modify reproductive cycles, and even prevent embryonic implantation. While the roles of pheromones in many nonhuman species are important, pheromones have become less important in human behavior over evolutionary time compared to their importance to organisms with more limited behavioral repertoires.

    Photo shows a tiger snarling.
    Figure 2. The flehmen response in this tiger results in the curling of the upper lip and helps airborne pheromone molecules enter the vomeronasal organ. (credit: modification of work by “chadh”/Flickr)

    The vomeronasal organ (VNO, or Jacobson’s organ) is a tubular, fluid-filled, olfactory organ present in many vertebrate animals that sits adjacent to the nasal cavity. It is very sensitive to pheromones and is connected to the nasal cavity by a duct. When molecules dissolve in the mucosa of the nasal cavity, they then enter the VNO where the pheromone molecules among them bind with specialized pheromone receptors. Upon exposure to pheromones from their own species or others, many animals, including cats, may display the flehmen response (shown in Figure 2), a curling of the upper lip that helps pheromone molecules enter the VNO.

    Pheromonal signals are sent, not to the main olfactory bulb, but to a different neural structure that projects directly to the amygdala (recall that the amygdala is a brain center important in emotional reactions, such as fear). The pheromonal signal then continues to areas of the hypothalamus that are key to reproductive physiology and behavior. While some scientists assert that the VNO is apparently functionally vestigial in humans, even though there is a similar structure located near human nasal cavities, others are researching it as a possible functional system that may, for example, contribute to synchronization of menstrual cycles in women living in close proximity.

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